Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Atheist Strategy and the Wal-Mart Petition

It started as a petition “respectfully requesting” that Wal-Mart quit selling The Bible because of its objectionable (obscene and immoral) content. That content includes a call to kill “hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees” who work on the Sabbath – a capital crime in biblical terms. It condones slavery (perhaps not a particularly compelling argument against Wal-Mart) as well as the murder of homosexuals and non-Christians.

It became a discussion over the issue of atheists picking their battles, and not picking battles that (1) they cannot win, and (2) will antagonize theists. I found that discussion carried out at Atheist Revolution, biblioblography, and About Agnosticism/Atheism.

On the Petition

On the petition itself, I have read comments by some who see the petition as a genuine attempt get Wal-Mart to quit selling The Bible, and raising objections to it on that point. This would, in fact, be an example of a battle that could not be won.

However, the comments of those who are calling for signatures are not actually calling for a ban on The Bible, but are seeking to call attention to the fact that Wal-Mart has an inconsistent set of censorship policies. This petition exposes the fact that the 'reasons' that Wal-Mart gives for banning certain material from its store (e.g., John Stewart's "America: The Book") are actually 'excuses.' If these were the real reasons -- the principles and criteria actually being used to make decisions -- then The Bible would be banned as well. The Bible is not being banned in Wal-Mart stores; thus, these 'reasons' that Wal-Mart uses to ban other material are thereby shown to be 'excuses' whose purpose is to hide the real reasons for their actions.

The 'real reasons' for their actions are the reasons that best explain and predict Wal-Mart's decisions. A reasonable hypothesis that fits the bulk of the evidence is that Wal-Mart is not merely a discount retail chain, but a promotional tool for Conservative/Christian Right political groups. Once we see it in this light, we can do a better job of explaining and predicting Wal-Mart's choices on what materials to allow or to prohibit.

So, the petition's real purpose is not to ban The Bible, but to provide a Reductio Ad Absurdum to Wal-Mart's censorship policies. Once presented to Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart will certainly refuse the petition. However, in doing so, it will expose its hypocritical policies on censorship. That is the real victory.

Picking Battles

In the midst of discussing the merits of this petition, there is a discussion on atheists 'picking their battles'. KA at biblioblography argued that atheists need to be less negative in their approach, and more positive -- that they need to do more charity work and put less effort in trying to block Christian expressions of their religious beliefs.

On this, I would like to question the idea that Atheists are actually all that negative. The press report negative stories because these are the stories that the people wish to buy. Positive stories about atheists do not sell newspapers, attract eyeballs to cable news network programs, or get voters riled up enough to drive to the poll on election day.

In fact, positive stories about atheism are likely to decrease circulation. These stories will be viewed favorably by only a small segment of the population -- the bulk of the population will see the organization that produces such stories as traitors who are siding with the enemy, and will turn to "friendlier" publications that reflect their own values

Alarmist stories about "The Evil Atheist Conspiracy," on the other hand, boost sales, increase ratings, and win votes.

Many marketing and public relations firms are aware of this, which is why they advise their clients to attach the term 'atheist' to anything they wish to destroy. Their campaign literature makes sure to speak about the atheist materialist scientist and the godless liberal because the terms 'atheist' and 'godless' sell fear and promote hatred of whatever these names can be associated with.

Atheist Role Models

I view the claim that atheists need to be more charitable and less negative as an act of blaming atheists for the lies told about them.

Where does one get the idea that atheists are not already devoting sufficient time and effort to helping others? Is it true that atheists are selfish individuals without a kind word or a helping hand to offer anybody? If it is true then, yes, perhaps atheists should do more for their fellow human. But, what if it is not true? And, what type of person is it who assumes, without proof that such derogatory statements are true?

We have armies of atheists who, every day, put on their lab coats and go into the labs to do battle. They do battle against ignorance. Every year, they drive the darkness of ignorance back a little further. They find cures for diseases, figure out how to predict tornados, set up tsunami warning systems, discover what foods and chemicals will poison us, produce more food, and promote agricultural science that feeds the world. These 'atheist materialist scientists' have cured the sick, allowed the lame to walk, and prevented more death than has been credited to any religious prophet walking the earth.

There is no shortage of atheist role models.

So, I am not inclined to accept the claim that atheists need to do more conspicuous charity. I am not inclined to accept, without argument, the implication that atheists are not already helping their friends, family, neighbors, and even perfect strangers. I am more inclined to believe that they are not getting credit for what they do -- and the more they do, the more they will not get credit for.

Besides, there is another fundamental problem with the idea of conspicuous charity. Charity is supposed to be done for the sake of those being helped. If one has ulterior motives, then it is not charity. If one’s motive is to worm one’s way into the good graces of the theist, then this does nothing to prove that atheists are, in fact, charitable.

Prejudice

Atheists are confronted with a basic prejudice. In order to combat basic prejudice, we need to be aware of some facts about how they operate.

The first is that no amount of conspicuous charity is going to do any good. For example, it is absurd to argue that Africans suffered the burden of slavery before 1865, and segregation from 1865 to the 1960s, and more subtle forms of discrimination since that date, because they failed to show a sufficient amount of conspicuous charity.

Native Americans were not pushed aside and nearly exterminated because of their lack of conspicuous charity; in fact, history records that many were quite charitable. Nor is it the case that the Jews could have been spared the holocaust if only they had engaged in more conspicuous charity, or Japanese Americans were interred during World War II because it was well known (and factually true) that they lacked the standard American capacity for conspicuous charity.

One of the things that is argued is that Atheists need to speak out more and identify themselves. There is reason to believe that, against an ingrained prejudice, this is not going to do any good either. It is patently absurd to argue that society might not have adopted its prejudicial attitudes towards Africans and African Americans if only they had been more willing to conspicuously identify themselves.

The Nazis required Jews to conspicuously identify themselves with large Stars of David sewn on their clothes. This did not mitigate the hatred against them. Instead, it allowed the Arians to focus their hatred more precisely.

I have suggested that the American requirement for the Pledge of Allegiance (where unpatriotic Americans unwilling to pledge allegiance to God are forced to identify themselves by sitting out the Pledge) has a lot in common with the Nazi requirement that Jews wear a Star of David. It is a way of identifying atheists (and other non-theists) for abuse the way the Nazi requirement allowed the Arian people to target Jews with abuse.

I find that it is also interesting to note that when children are divided into an accepted “us” group, and an unacceptable “them” group symbolically and actually excluded (ostracized) “them” group, that this encourages the members of the “us” group become aggressive overachievers and tends to make members of the “them” group more passive.

Bigots view everything they see through the lens of bigotry. This is what prejudice is all about. The bigot "pre-judges" his victims, and then gives the victim's actions an interpretation that conforms to their prejudice. There is no way that the victim of prejudice can possibly act contrary to prejudice, because prejudice dictates the ‘correct’ way to interpret the victim’s action.

If the bigot sees a black teenager trying to get into a car in a parking lot, he assumes they are stealing it, and calling the cops. If, instead, he sees a blonde woman trying to unlock the car, he thinks, "The ditz locked her keys in the car," and possibly offers her his help. Prejudice distorts the bigot's perceptions so that he sees things in ways that conform to the prejudice -- if he sees things at all. If anything seems to contradict the prejudice, then it is an aberration – a fluke – one of those “one in a million things” that really does not have to be taken seriously (no matter how many times it happens).

So, any conspicuous charity that might have been displayed by the Africans before slavery ended and African Americans after slavery, the Jews, the Japanese Americans, the Native Americans -- all counted for nothing.

Here we can see that there is a fundamental insult buried into the claims of those who say that Atheists (Jews, Africans, African Americans, Native Americans, Japanese Americans) are responsible for the treatment they receive because of their failure to act with sufficient conspicuous charity. There is no moral distinction between blaming the atheist for provoking the fundamentalist Christian and blaming the Jew for provoking the Nazi, or blaming a rape victim for provoking the rapist. All of these are examples of blaming the victim for their victimization.

Dealing with Prejudice

The way to deal with prejudice is to make the bigot's bigotry too obvious to ignore.

I marvel at Ghandi's salt march. The British had passed a law against the Indians making their own salt -- so that the Indians were forced to buy salt from British companies. Ghandi announced the day that he was going to break the law. He started a 200 mile march from his house to the sea where he did not engage in an act of conspicuous charity. He engaged in an act of conspicuous, non-violent civil disobedience -- one that made the injustice of the British law too obvious to ignore.

Also, I admire Rosa Parks, Martin Luthar, and the Bus Boycott in Montgomery Alabama, were another excellent example of how to deal with prejudice. They, too, made the violent hate-based bigotry of the segregated south too conspicuous to ignore.

I consider the Wal-Mart petition to have merit. Of course Wal-Mart will refuse the petition. However, from that point on, any time that Wal-Mart bans a book because of its 'liberal' content, and claims to do so for some other reason, Wal-Mart's hypocrisy will be even more apparent.

In short, the atheist answer to prejudice should not be to cast our gaze down and say, "I'm sorry that I'm an atheist. I promise to be good. Please don't hate me."

The answer is to look others straight in the eye and say, "I am a fellow human and I have the right to be treated with the same dignity and respect as any other human. If you should fail to do so, the shame and the fault is not mine. It is yours."

5 comments:

stillwaters said...

Excellent article, Alonzo. This truly struck a strong chord in me. I have been seriously thinking about the way atheists are regarded in this society, and how we can change these attitudes.

Your identification of prejudice is right-on, and your solution is, honestly, the first practical idea I've noticed for making some changes.

I agree with your assessment of the real reasons to sign and support the wal-mart bible letter, and share your hopes that wal-mart will be exposed for its hypocrisy.

Robert said...

I had actually signed this petition earlier, and my thoughts were the same as your argument. I don't actually want Wal-Mart to stop selling the bible. I want to show people that Wal-Mart is using a set of hypocritical standards.

My goal isn't the destruction of religion, its a set of rules and standards that are based on reason.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Alonzo:
Your points are indeed well taken.
The first is that no amount of conspicuous charity is going to do any good. For example, it is absurd to argue that Africans suffered the burden of slavery before 1865, and segregation from 1865 to the 1960s, and more subtle forms of discrimination since that date, because they failed to show a sufficient amount of conspicuous charity.
I don't think this is a great example, as there is no visible distinction between an atheist & a theist until someone actually vocalizes their ideology in some manner.
One of the things that is argued is that Atheists need to speak out more and identify themselves. There is reason to believe that, against an ingrained prejudice, this is not going to do any good either.
Disagree entirely. Silence is often misconstrued as assent. Loud 'n proud, baby. Enough people speak up, it gets heard.
Bigots view everything they see through the lens of bigotry. This is what prejudice is all about. The bigot "pre-judges" his victims, and then gives the victim's actions an interpretation that conforms to their prejudice. There is no way that the victim of prejudice can possibly act contrary to prejudice, because prejudice dictates the ‘correct’ way to interpret the victim’s action.
That's not entirely true. Perception isn't locked in stasis for everyone. It's a slow, uphill battle, but just viewing history, we can see that change does indeed get instituted.
All of these are examples of blaming the victim for their victimization.
Hey, I've gone enough rounds w/theists to be able to see both sides of the issues.
Fact is, I'm getting a little sick of the attitude we encounter. I hate stereotypes. So you sit down, & figure out the pathology, not bitch about the symptoms.
In short, the atheist answer to prejudice should not be to cast our gaze down and say, "I'm sorry that I'm an atheist. I promise to be good. Please don't hate me."
I have to take exception to that. I look people dead in the eye, & if I give a homeless person a quarter, they bless me? I say, "Naw. I'm an atheist." If people ask me which church I go to, I tell 'em, "I'm an atheist." I'm very vocal about it. I'm definitely NOT in the closet about it.
Truth is, I'm getting a little irritated w/these accusations of apathy & submissiveness.
Think of it as a chess game. Or any strategic use of resources.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

KA: Thanks for stopping by.

Item 1: The fact that blacks start off with a visible marker, and atheists do not, would not effect the argument. If having a marker had no effect, then I do not see how creating a marker would have an effect.

It's like -- if the shovel that I have does not do any good, then building a shovel, it seems, would not work either.

Item 2: I am not advocating silence. I would not be here if I were advocating silence. (I would, instead, be silent.) No, the solution is to be visible -- but not the visibility of "conspicuous charity". It is, instead, the conspicuousness of visible protest -- but, protest.

The thing about protest is that those who are the object of protest get riled by it -- like the Southerners during the civil rights days. It is not an objection to protest that the people one is calling 'bigot' tends to be offended by the fact that one calls them 'bigot'.

Item 3: The same as 2 -- I am sick of the attitude as well. That is why I am here. I am not telling anybody to accept "the attitude". I am saying that, against prejudice, there are certain responses that work better than others. Against prejudice, "conspicuous charity" is not the answer, but "conspicuous protest" is == particularly conspicuous protest that is well argued.

Item 4: You may be conspicuous about your atheism. I am about mine. However, I believe that, on average, atheists keep their opinions to themselves rather than 'make waves'. Indeed, this is not entirely irrational -- there are those who extract a high cost on those who deny the existence of their God.

However, it is still my opinion that merely expressing that one is an opinion is enough. One does have to stand in front of the bigot and say, "You are wrong. Your actions are immoral and you should be ashamed." And be able to back up such a claim.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hi Alonzo:
Item 1: The fact that blacks start off with a visible marker, and atheists do not, would not effect the argument. If having a marker had no effect, then I do not see how creating a marker would have an effect.
I do. Every time I tell someone who gets to know me that I'm an atheist, the shock is visible. Point is, you lay groundwork 1st.
Item 2: I am not advocating silence. I would not be here if I were advocating silence. (I would, instead, be silent.) No, the solution is to be visible -- but not the visibility of "conspicuous charity". It is, instead, the conspicuousness of visible protest -- but, protest.
I can go along w/all of that - but we do here "You people sure bitch a lot!"
The thing about protest is that those who are the object of protest get riled by it -- like the Southerners during the civil rights days. It is not an objection to protest that the people one is calling 'bigot' tends to be offended by the fact that one calls them 'bigot'.
Hey, someone somewhere is ALWAYS gonna get stoked - I called a theist poster at my blog a bigot, he tried to REDEFINE the term. My point is, piss people off? Sure. Piss everyone off? Might not be such good PR.
Item 3: The same as 2 -- I am sick of the attitude as well. That is why I am here. I am not telling anybody to accept "the attitude". I am saying that, against prejudice, there are certain responses that work better than others. Against prejudice, "conspicuous charity" is not the answer, but "conspicuous protest" is == particularly conspicuous protest that is well argued.
All for that too. I'm just saying, we need to put the 'human' in humanist.
Item 4: You may be conspicuous about your atheism. I am about mine. However, I believe that, on average, atheists keep their opinions to themselves rather than 'make waves'. Indeed, this is not entirely irrational -- there are those who extract a high cost on those who deny the existence of their God.
Ain't that the truth. I'm going to try to pop my own 'meme' out sometime in the next day or so. It's gonna take a lot of patience, & some time - but I think that as individuals & as a collective, we can dilute & someday destroy the stereotype.
However, it is still my opinion that merely expressing that one is an opinion is enough. One does have to stand in front of the bigot and say, "You are wrong. Your actions are immoral and you should be ashamed." And be able to back up such a claim.
I second the motion. Enough voices get raised...but I said that already. Picture's worth a 1000 words, as the old saw goes.
Stay tuned. I'm going to try my own social experiment very soon.
& thanks.